Tuesday 18 December 2018

Unsinkable spirit drives solo voyager

Adventurer Enda O'Coineen set out to fulfil a life-long dream but it didn't go as planned, writes Alan O'Keeffe

HOME IS THE SAILOR: Enda on Le Souffle du Nord
HOME IS THE SAILOR: Enda on Le Souffle du Nord

Alan O'Keeffe

A "massive crash" when the mast broke on a storm-tossed yacht was a moment of crisis for Irish adventurer and businessman Enda O'Coineen.

He was completely alone in rough seas almost 200 nautical miles south-east of New Zealand.

He was battling the elements as he took part in an around-the-world race for solo sailors.

Competitors had to sail around the globe single-handed without any outside help and never stop at any port. The Vendee Globe race is the ultimate quest in human endurance on the high seas.

"I suddenly went from a testosterone-driven aim to finish the race to a much more serious survival situation," said O'Coineen.

"There was a big hole on deck with the ocean coming in," he said.

Enda celebrating his arrival in Les Sables-d’Olonne in France
Enda celebrating his arrival in Les Sables-d’Olonne in France

The gruelling race puts competitors often well beyond the reach of emergency services. It begins and ends in the Vendee region of western France and it takes place every four years.

"It's not for the faint-hearted," said the 62-year-old. "I cut the mast away from the yacht and the boat's movements were very violent without the mast.

"It was the end of the race for me. I felt gutted. I'm a grown man - but I cried," he said.

That happened in January last year and he managed to patch up the hole in the deck and use a head sail turned upside down on the Kilcullen Team Ireland 60-foot yacht to limp into Port Chalmers on New Zealand's South Island after another week at sea. It seemed like the end of his life-long dream to sail single-handed around the world.

Enda with the South Atlantic Residents Association
Enda with the South Atlantic Residents Association

However, another yacht - the French yacht 'Le Souffle Du Nord Pour Le Projet Imagine' - also ended up in New Zealand after its hull was damaged. And after extensive discussions with the backers of the French yacht, he struck a deal whereby he could assist them in their goal of getting their boat to complete a round-the-world voyage.

He would use equipment and parts from his own boat to help repair the other boat.

The newly constituted vessel representing the merged Irish-French endeavour would be named Le Souffle Du Nord Kilcullen Team Ireland. The Irishman would be appointed ambassador and skipper and sole occupant of the vessel on the voyage to France.

In this way, he would fulfil his dream of sailing solo around the world. It took a year for everything to be organised while the Irish entrepreneur also tended to his business interests. So on January 26 last, a year after being forced out of the race, he set sail from New Zealand on the second half of his 13,000- nautical miles voyage.

A very tough section of the route lay ahead - sailing around the notorious Cape Horn at the tip of South America.

"It was scary. Very high winds. Waves bigger than double-decker buses. I was on edge all the time. The waves were too rough so I had to steer manually. I thought the cockpit would collapse.

"Besides cooking, steering, and navigating, one of the most important things needed was to be psychologically tough," he said. "There were incredible highs and incredible lows," he said.

His only company on board were three soft toys - a monkey he named Adolph, a leprechaun called Paddy, and a teddy bear named Grunch. These three silent guys and Enda himself were the four members of the newly-established 'Southern Ocean Residents' Association'.

As he crossed the equator on March 16, he got a congratulatory telephone call from President Michael D Higgins. When the call came through from Aras an Uachtarain, he humorously answered with the words "Southern Ocean Residents' Association - how may I direct your call?"

The wind died off the coast of Brazil and he had to do his best to 'find' some wind. He ended up voyaging with the prevailing winds up to the Caribbean before crossing to the Azores.

He still had to contend with an extreme winter storm in the North Atlantic. But he sailed into Les Sables-d'Olonne in France into a publicity storm of good news as the French have taken all aspects of the round-the-world race to their hearts. The Irish sailor dressed up as an ancient sea captain for the event.

He arrived into port on Easter Sunday and "it felt a bit like a resurrection day for me", he said.

Previously, he had attended a reception for competitors in the race hosted by the then French President Francois Hollande. O'Coineen is president of the Atlantic Youth Trust, an All-Ireland trust which offers young people from all backgrounds life-changing youth development opportunities through sailing. The trust benefited from the fundraising and promotion opportunities of his epic voyage but no donation funds were spent on the quest.

His global voyage was just the latest of his adventures. When aged 22, he set out for Ireland from Boston in a 16ft inflatable rubber dinghy powered by a sail and completed almost 3,000 miles across the Atlantic before capsizing less than 400 miles from the Irish coast. He was rescued by the Royal Navy. However, he later completed that quest too.

A native of Galway and a father-of-four, Mr O'Coineen was the founding chairman of the Volvo Ocean Race in Galway on a voluntary basis. He was an organiser of the NCB Ireland bid in the Whitbread Round The World Yacht Race in 1989.

He has business interests in Ireland and central and eastern Europe. He is founder and partner in Kilcullen Kapital Partners, an investment platform that invests in entrepreneurs. Prior to the de-regulation in the Czech telecoms market, he founded Globix Telecom with three colleagues with a combined investment of $250,000 and they sold it four years later at a value of $35m. As a young man he founded Afloat magazine which he later sold.

He has written four published books to date, including The Unsinkable Entrepreneur.

As part of Team Ireland Racing, he is backing Gregor McGuckin's Team Ireland Racing single-handed around-the-world sailing race in early July.

"I'm still on a high since getting back to Ireland," he said. "Before I started, some people said I was stone mad to try it. But a stone sinks. You have to be extraordinarily sane to undertake something like that."

Thank you to all who sent Enda messages of support. Please continue to support the Atlantic Youth Trust whose mission is to connect young people with the ocean and adventure

Sunday Independent

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